Top albums 2015 advent calendar: Day 22
Royal Headache - High
What's Your Rupture?
Royal Headache's self-titled debut album from 2012 was a 26-minute blast of fuzz rock pop gems, and the immediacy of its scrappy but electrifying guitar work is what earned them a fanbase who drifted over from garage and lo-fi tendencies. However, Royal Headache's real ace in the hole is the gloriously soulful voice of Shogun, their singer, who reportedly took eight months to perfect his performance on the debut album. "High," the early single and title track from their second album indicated that Royal Headache know perfectly well where their major asset is. By pushing Shogun's vocals to the fore in what was their most joyous and catchy song to date they created a slightly tipsy, Poguesian treat. This aroused the attention of several new fans, while simultaneously slightly confusing older fans who were expecting something a little scrappier.
Upon hearing the first chords of "My Own Fantasy," High's opening track, the sprightly guitar immediately has echoes of Joan Jett, and then Shogun's voice comes and sweeps you up and away as he takes us on a trip through his fantasies, his voice seemingly riding the crest of the music. This momentum follows into "Need You," which finds Shogun bursting his lungs in desperate pleading, while the guitars tumble. At this point, listeners new and old should both immediately hooked in, as the songs hark back to late '70s rock while boasting some of their most finely-tuned hooks.
The influences are clear throughout; as well as hints of the aforementioned Pogues and Joan Jett, you'll find homages to The Replacements' sunny jangle pop ("Carolina") and Buzzcocks' chainsaw guitars ("Electric Shock"). But, the real highlight of the collection is also its most surprising; the mid-album tent-pole and song of the year contender "Wouldn't You Know." The song drastically peels back the guitar fuzz, and in fact has a verse that does away with it entirely in favour of a swinging, slightly bluesy bass line and luminescent, floating keyboards. This delicate concoction sets the stage for Shogun's rich, syrupy vocals, before the chorus kicks in and he amps up to his most powerful and heartbreaking performance to date with the melancholic-yet-powerful refrain about a naïve, unloved subject. It is the finest and truest torch song of recent years, and should be a star-making turn for the band.
Despite having several elements that hark back to classic rock bands, High never comes close to sounding trite or uninspired. This is because Royal Headache revere those bands, but they also hold up soul and R&B in the same light, and that can certainly be heard throughout too. This gives them so much versatility in their sound, and with Shogun they have a voice that can keep up. Every song is packed with vocal thrills, whether it's the rasping and sorrowful performance in "Love Her If I Tried," or when his voice weaves through breakneck guitars like a high-speed motorcyclist as it does on "Little Star," to name a couple. Needless to say, despite its seemingly slight 29-minute length, High packs in more than enough ideas, hooks and moments of pure emotion that it will not wear out anytime soon.
Have I bought this album?: Got it on yellow vinyl!
This piece was originally published as a review on The 405.
Titus Andronicus - The Most Lamentable Tragedy
When Titus Andronicus announced that their fourth album would be a 29-track, 93-minute rock opera, it was actually kind of a relief. They have previously toyed with thematic concept albums on their 2010 modern classic The Monitor, but when they followed that up a couple of years later with the good but relatively straightforward Local Business, it seemed like the bombastic ambition that had fueled their youthful output was mellowing out into something more standard. However, knowing singer Patrick Stickles is a man of great passion, intelligence, will and emotion, we should have been prepared for him to lead them back to the brink of chaos with an album of huge proportions.
The reason The Most Lamentable Tragedy works, despite it being 90 minutes of seemingly relentless churning guitars and punk riffs, is that there is structure, flow and craft put into the creation of this production. The story is ostensibly about a protagonist (a surrogate for Stickles) going through a schizophrenic break and cracking into multiple personalities under the pressures of modern life. One of Titus Andronicus' main attractions to their rabble of fans is their ability to turn every day feelings of frustration into shout-along hooks of enlivening, empowering and throat-ripping statements - and this story allows Stickles plenty of opportunities to do just that. From the first proper song on the album, "No Future Part IV," we get our first taste of this as Stickles leads us into a screaming fit of "I HATE TO BE AWAKE! I HATE TO BE AWAKE!" while scrambling across raucous guitars. The downfall of the first act continues on "I Lost My Mind" when, after taking several minutes explaining how he came to lose it, he finally repeats the freeing phrase "I don't mind when I lose my mind."
The piano plays a big part on The Most Lamentable Tragedy in ensuring that the songs chock full of melodies, but also gives the album a late-night boozy tavern feeling, which is certainly the case through Act II of the album, where our protagonist seems to be getting drunker on his madness - as well as anything else in reach. Our protagonist is starting to grow accustomed to his new split personality and unhinged state and on "Fired Up" convinces himself "the devious and weak make insidious schemes / they wanna water down the fire which is ALWAYS BURNING," stoking the embers of his own fury while invigorating those around him. He then expounds on the virtues of dauntlessly throwing your entire self into the struggles of daily life, in one of Titus Andronicus' most explosive and unsuppressable punk anthems to date, "Dimed Out."
Further evidence as to the planning and craft that went into making The Most Lamentable Tragedy can be seen in the symmetrical 10-minute epics that land either side of the intermission (yes, there is an official intermission). "More Perfect Union" closes Act II and the first half of the album with a thunderous but painful descent into hallucination, as our protagonist reminisces about the struggles of his father, the disappointment of his life, and leaves the first half proclaiming "Oh on the other side my whole life's a-waiting / In her glimmering eye I'll be another man," Opening the second half with a moment of pure lust, we're lead into a messy one-night stand in the desire for human connection on "(S)HE SAID / (S)HE SAID." Starting as a shredding full-pelt rock song as the "courtship" is described, Titus then take the song into hushed, choral quietness as the protagonist observes his sleeping partner and realises he hasn't made any real verbal connection with her at all - but he'd really like to. It finally comes out with the guitars roaring back into life and him screaming "I've always had something inside me!" repeatedly. Strangely, she seems to like it, and it sends them on an unhealthy relationship.
Whether or not you want to dig right into the lyrics and the 5-act structure is down to you, but they certainly hold sway over the shape of the album. The acts are recorded like suites so the songs run into each other, and the momentum from one song flies straight through into the next giving extra propulsion. This is particularly the case in Act III where our protagonist has finally found a lover, and starts to joyfully and recklessly unburden himself. "Funny Feeling" continues expounding on the feeling of having an inner power controlling his actions, but here Stickles states: "I can control something inside me." This possibly futile determination builds up into blusters of guitars as Stickles maniacally repeats those last 3 words, the song chugging and chugging, puffing out more and more steam until suddenly, in unison, the band rears back their charging instruments and switches tact into a jaunty, bouncy, intoxicated riff. This is the undeniably excellent introduction to "Fatal Flaw," Titus Andronicus' most utterly joyous song to date. Even though it is about admitting your faults to the one you love, it's done with so much enthusiasm that you feel the protagonist's pure happiness at having someone they can open up to: "let me show you my fatal flaw; it's the best one you ever saw!"
Into Act IV and the elation of love flows on, unheedingly, with "Come On, Siobhan" sweeping in on a ribbon of violins weaving its way through the heroic piano and guitar, as Stickles expounds on the object of his affections, and the couple's Us v Them brittleness towards the world around. The band then covers The Pogues "A Pair Of Brown Eyes," turning it into a tale of stoned and dogged pursuit of beauty through the cold and harsh world. Our protagonist's life is brimming with delirious happiness that they stumble into a faithful cover of "Auld Lang Syne" to emphasise their drunken delight.
However, as "Auld Lang Syne" reaches its conclusion, the lead guitar clangs out several chimes like a clock striking midnight, and suddenly the magic has worn off: the inevitable decline has arrived. "I'm Going Insane" sparks up out of the embers and finds Stickles just repeating the titular phrase again and again, gradually getting more manic, while Titus loose the reins and motor their guitars into full-pelt punk, tearing around looking for an exit from their inner turmoil. "Into The Void" continues with the scything, buzzing guitars galloping along as we follow Stickles' train of thought down into the blackest of the black, "I'm more than some disease / I was born to kill a wicked king." Throughout the song Stickles is using imagery of his forefathers, his potential as a father and the tragedies of men in the past and future; he rides out the storm through the pelting, brutalising rock and roll and winds up back in his mother's arms.
The final two songs on The Most Lamentable Tragedy are our protagonist coming face to face with his doppelganger and accepting him. "No Future Part V" finishes off the No Future Saga started back on their debut album, but unlike its prequels, this one is a slower, piano-led ballad, although Stickles' intensity is in no way lessened, and even when he concludes "You're at peace when you sleep / enter the endless dream with me," he sounds bitter and defeated. We also get "Stable Boy," an aesthetic tribute to Daniel Johnston in its use of lo-fi recording, a hand organ and Stickles' whining, cracking voice. It's more of an epilogue to the story, as we focus on a lowly worker coming to accept his irrelevance and smallness in the vast and unmanageable world.
The very final track on The Most Lamentable Tragedy is "A Moral," which returns to the same droning note that opens the album, followed by the audible inhalation of the entire band, as if they're preparing to rip through it all over again. It perfectly primes you to flip from side 6 straight back to side 1, and to go through our protagonist's tumultuous trials once more; singing, screaming, punching, drinking, loving and just surviving along with him through this grand and ambitious album.
Have I bought this album?: Yes! I got it from the really cool Microgroove in Tampa, FL. and it's one of, if not the, most beautiful package that I have in my collection. In honour of the grandiosty of the album Merge have gone all out to make an excellently beautiful designed and annotated package. And it came with a movie-style poster of The Most Lamentable Tragedy, which I've framed and put on my wall.